A recent investigation has found that more than 1,000 objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York could have ties to alleged antique traffickers and looters. Many of the artefacts were acquired in the 1960s when museum staff often overlooked evidence of smuggling in an effort to source more major acquisitions than London and Paris.
“The Met sets the tone for museums around the world,” said Tess Davis, executive director of the anti-trafficking group Antiquities Coalition. “If the Met is letting all of these things fall through the cracks, what hope do we have for the rest of the art market?”
Conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media outlets (ICIJ), the report claims that fewer than half of the 1,109 pieces possess records concerning how they left their countries of origin. More than 250 antiquities have been linked to Nepal and Kashmir – two regions where heavy looting has occurred over the last century – with full provenance histories for only three of these objects.
“Nepal has a living religion where these idols are actively worshiped in temples. People pray to them and take them out during festivals for ceremonies,” explained Roshan Mishra, a volunteer with the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign. “When relics are stolen, those festivals stop. Each stolen statue erodes our culture. Our traditions fade and are eventually forgotten.”
Numerous antiquities were also directly linked to people indicted or convicted of crimes. The museum acquired almost two-dozen pieces from the American antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht (1919-2012), even after he was charged by Italian prosecutors with smuggling in the 1960s. Hecht’s associate Jonathan P. Rosen, who was charged alongside him in Italy in 1997, was linked to more than 800 objects in the collection.
As the largest and most-visited museum in the US, the Met is now unequivocally feeling the pressure from provenance researchers and cultural heritage campaigners to return looted antiquities. But this is not the first time the museum has hit the headlines; in 2019, the Met returned a stolen 2,000-year-old gold coffin from Ancient Egypt worth $4 million (£3.2 million), which had been purchased in 2017 despite the “poorly forged” export licence given by the dealer. Last year, US authorities seized at least 29 items originating from all over the world, including Egyptian bronzes and Greek busts.
Responding to the recent claims of questionable provenance, museum spokesperson Kenneth Weine commented that “the Met is committed to the responsible collecting of art and goes to great lengths to ensure that all works entering the collection meet the laws and strict policies in place at the time of acquisition.”